Most articles on traffic safety focus on the number of people killed every year. In 2012, that was about 33,500 people in the US. That's down in raw numbers from a high of around 55,000 in the early 1970's and sharply down in deaths as a percentage of miles driven. Obviously seat belts and air bags are a big factor, as well as some other newer safety features. Some may say driver education also helps, but given what I see daily on the road I find that hard to believe.
But it's still a big number. Accidents are the 5th largest cause of death in the US, and car accidents are the biggest number in the "accidents" category. Left to its own category, car accidents would likely fall in around 10th or 11th in cause of death.
More telling of the safety risks of driving, though, are the number of people seriously injured every year. In 2010, over 2 million people were injured in car accidents. Suffice it to say that 2 million is a really big number.
What's most telling in all of this, though, is that we just seem to shrug it all off as if it's a fact of life. Or, more importantly, as if there's really nothing we can do about it. After all, people are going to drive, right?
I've long argued that the best anti-drunk driving policy is living in a walkable community. After all, if you don't need to drive home after having a drink or two, then you don't really need to worry about designated drivers, taxis or bumming a ride. Sommer Mathis picks up on that theme recently here:
But nowhere in MADD's official agenda is there a prong, or even a small bullet point, about encouraging alternative transportation options like mass transit or ride-hailing apps. There is no MADD fund to build more sidewalks or promote land-use patterns and zoning reforms that would allow for the expansion of walkable neighborhoods in Sunbelt metros like Phoenix.
It's not that Withers herself is against any of these ideas. Her son and his wife, she'll tell you, chose to live in their Northern Virginia neighborhood so they could have better access to Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail system. But MADD's worldview is decidedly, and not unreasonably, more cynical than that. "What we really know is that people will never stop thinking that it's OK for them to drive that way," says Withers. "Our approach has changed a bit over the years. It used to be 'get tough, have tougher laws.' But what we've learned is, that doesn't work. Fifty to 70 percent of people still drive when their license is revoked."
Instead of seeing a statistic like that as a sign that something might be fundamentally flawed in the transportation options most Americans have available to them, MADD interprets the existence of so many repeat offenders as a mass-scale character flaw—in other words, there will always be people, and lots of them, who are incapable of making a different choice.
Zooming out even more, Nicole Gelinas writes about the Vision Zero policy underway in New York City that aims to dramatically reduce deaths and injuries from vehicles:
The inspiration behind the plan, which reinforces and expands on efforts by Michael Bloomberg’s administration, comes from Sweden’s use of innovative road design and smart law enforcement, which has reduced overall traffic fatalities in Stockholm by 45 percent—and pedestrian fatalities by 31 percent—over the last 15 years. When a child runs after a bouncing ball into a residential street and a speeding car strikes and kills him, the Vision Zero philosophy maintains, the death shouldn’t be seen as an unavoidable tragedy but as the result of an error of road design or behavioral reinforcement, or both. We already think this way about mass transit and aviation. These days, a plane crash or a train derailment is never solely explained by human error (a train conductor falling asleep, say); it also is a failure of a system that allowed a mistake to culminate in disaster. Of course, engineers and regulators can’t eliminate all injuries and deaths; but by applying rigorous, data-based methods, they can cut down on them dramatically.
That's a radical change in world-view, but the kind that asks the right questions. Instead of helplessly accepting things as they are, it asks, "what can we do about it?" Or, "what if we start from a different series of questions?" As Gelinas states, of course achieving zero deaths or zero injuries is very likely impossible. But by stating that as a goal, it points decision-makers in the right direction.